Imagine an organization that is completely digitally connected. Colleagues connect seamlessly with each other across silos and across the globe. Management has its finger on the pulse of the company, aware of every crisis-induced quickening. And throughout the organization there is a deep sense of connection to the purpose and mission of the organization, and to each other, breaking down hierarchies in the process.
Snap! Leaders – it’s time to wake up from this fairy tale. This is the world spun by people pushing collaboration platforms and enterprise social networks as the panacea to our collaboration woes. The reality is that the landscape is littered with failed technology deployments. Altimeter’s research shows that less than half of the enterprise collaboration tools installed have many employees using them regularly (see figure below).
I recently spoke with leadership at a top Silicon Valley technology firm that had installed an internal enterprise collaboration platform for its employee engagement and collaboration efforts. After an initial spike in adoption, usage slowly dwindled. It was a disappointing outcome and they wanted to know how to fix it, or if they should maybe just toss it out and invest in a new platform.
As I stood in front of the executive team I posed an opening question: “How many of you have been on the platform in the past week?”
Only a single hand went up – the administrator of the platform.
The problem was simple and obvious – because the top executives didn’t see collaboration and engagement as a good use of their time, employees quickly learned that they shouldn’t either.
Our research shows that leadership participation is crucial for collaboration. Leaders know they should engage with employees, especially via digital and social channels. But they don’t, and they offer a string of common excuses such as “I don’t have enough time” or “Nobody cares what I had for lunch.” More than anything else, they fear that engaging will close the power distance between them and their employees, thereby lessening their ability to command and control.
Here are three ways for leaders to take the first steps to becoming what I call an engaged leader – a person who is confident extending their leadership through and deeply into digital channels.
1. Listen at scale. At Red Robin, a chain of over 450 casual restaurants, Chris Laping, the CIO and senior vice president of business transformation, spearheaded the company-wide implementation of Yammer, an enterprise social network. When the chain launched its Pig Out Burger in 2012, employees posted that the new menu item was getting panned by customers. Reviews flooded in and were funneled to executives and to the test kitchens at headquarters. “Managers started talking on Yammer about ways to tweak the Pig Out recipe and four weeks later we had an improved, kitchen-tested version to roll out to customers,” Laping shared. “That’s a process that would have taken 12 to 18 months before.”
Laping and many other executives have realized that the simple act of listening—and letting colleagues know that they are being heard—is the first crucial step to meaningful collaboration. Determine who you want to listen to based on where collaboration would be most useful to your organization: who are they, what are their biggest pain points, what information do you need to make key decisions? In this case, the collaboration tool could be any sort of feedback mechanism—a bulletin board or even an email inbox is better than no feedback loop. The key is that you, as a leader, need to be on the other end, eager and open to learn and listen.
2. Share to shape. Rosemary Turner, the president of UPS North California District, has a major problem—when her team of 17,000 people are doing a good job they don’t see much of each other. That’s because her people are in trucks, on loading docks, or making sales calls. To keep people connected, Turner uses Twitter because it’s a platform that UPS employees are already comfortable with. Turner uses Twitter to share updates such as “Stay away from the Bay Bridge—there’s an accident” and so on. She also uses it to recognize employees, posing with them in pictures and sharing them online.
Because of how easily she shares in social channels, her people trust her. What’s more, this dovetails with the wider “open-door policy” at UPS, whereby employees, customers, and vendors are encouraged to maintain an open dialogue with company leadership. She shared, “I am finding that when I send out a blast on Twitter, I get just as much if not more reaction than if I send out a survey internally.” Turner’s approach to sharing enables employees to reach her anytime—thereby achieving her goals as well as the larger corporate mandate for openness.
To get started with sharing, identify the platform your employees are already using. Then think of a story you can tell there that will inspire someone to take action toward achieving a key objective. You could share the highlights of a customer conversation or a news article that reinforces a strategic decision. As a leader, the key is to start collecting and sharing in order to shape specific outcomes. While it’s true that no one really cares what you had for lunch, they are keenly interested in what you discussed over lunch. Rather than expecting employees to guess what’s important to you, now you can tell them, easily, with stories and pictures on the digital channels they already use.
3. Engage to transform. David Thodey, the CEO of Telstra, the largest telecommunications company in Australia, wanted to make it crystal clear that he was serious about using the organization’s enterprise social network for business. So he used it to ask, “What processes and technologies should we eliminate?” The question received over 700 responses within the first hour, and gave Thodey an immediate and intimate look into what wasn’t working at Telstra. But more importantly, Thodey and his executive team used the platform for the follow-up discussion, signaling that they were serious about creating a dialog to make making meaningful decisions in digital channels. By being responsive and closing the loop digitally, Thodey demonstrated that employee participation made a difference.
Employees are smart—they won’t waste their time on stunts that are purely for show. Think about the types of engagements you want to have in digital channels—with whom, about what, and when. Engaging to transform is the capstone step in the journey to becoming an engaged leader. It involves listening and sharing (both are integral parts of engagement) and interacting with followers in a thoughtful way, either at scale or one-to-one. This is part of what makes engagement precious—it has tremendous meaning for the people with whom a leader chooses to engage. It is a tool, therefore, that should be used wisely and intentionally. If it becomes commonplace, it may lose its value.
Collaboration depends on trust, and it’s crucial for leaders to learn how to do this in the digital era. The tools themselves matter less than the ability of leaders to describe the intent and purpose of the tools. Simply putting a technology platform in place won’t suffice—you must think through how the organization will change and how you will lead it into and through that change. Unless you have a magic wand, the fairy tale world of collaboration won’t happen simply because you plug in a technology. But you have something better—a leadership vision, strategic objectives, and the passion to guide your organization through the changes ahead. Rely on these foundational leadership skills and learn to extend them into the digital world. If you can do that, then collaboration will find its place in your organization.